Thursday, January 31, 2008

Volunteers seek out homeless

By Maria Garriga
Register Staff
— A team of Connecticut Counts volunteers cautiously entered an isolated lot off Woodin Street Wednesday night, searching for homeless people who may have taken shelter there.
The volunteers, some of whom are shown at right, walked across the dark lot until they found a stone cross at the end, a tall grave marker bearing no name. This team had discovered a forgotten pauper’s cemetery, the Hamden-Westville Woodin Cemetery. The cross may have had no name because it stood for all the dead who had been buried, penniless, anonymous, homeless.
Thirty-four teams, totaling 110 volunteers, fanned out through the city looking for homeless people at risk of exposure.
Yale Divinity School students who volunteered said it would be a good chance to practice what they learned in class. By 9:30 p.m., the teams had found 60 people out in the cold. The count went on until 11 p.m.
The team that found the pauper’s cemetery continued to scour West Rock by car, scanning the woods, consulting a map and trying to make sure they surveyed each street for which they were responsible. They checked a loading dock. They looked at solitary cars in parking lots.
At an abandoned project with boarded up doors and windows, volunteer Tom Lehtonen, an alderman, used a heavy-duty flashlight to look into units with open doors. He couldn’t get too close — a tall fence separated the buildings from the sidewalk.
"This is where they might take shelter," volunteer Allison Ponce said.
The team left West Rock and headed to Shelton Avenue and Newhall Street. An older man leaning on crutches stood outside a convenience store that had just closed out. He asked all passers-by for fifty cents.
Ponce took out the homeless survey and asked him a few questions and then gave up. "He said he had his crib," she said, shrugging as they walked down the darkened residential streets.
After two hours, they headed back to the offices of Liberty Community Services Safe Haven, a bustling hub at 210 State St. where volunteers met up to share their survey results.
"I’m so excited. I really wanted to see the neighborhoods," said Anna Robinson-Sweet, 19, a Yale University freshman from Brooklyn, N.Y.
Homeless workers had been sent to canvass parts of town known to have high numbers of homeless people.
Others traveled to neighborhoods with boarded-up houses, vacant lots, stores and other places that might attract people seeking shelter.
A group of volunteers from Cheshire United Methodist Church left Liberty Community Services amazed at their experience.
"I really wanted to see how you feel when you see a homeless person," said Elizabeth Thomas.
"We do it partly to get to know ourselves," added Carolyn Hardin-Englehardt. "You find out how you interact with the homeless. Personally, for me I thought it would be spiritually challenging to face homelessness."

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